The Friendship Vision,
Faith on Fire:
Seeing and Showing God Clearly
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, February 8, 2004)
Don, a member of our congregation, sent a story to me this week via email. It may not be factual, but it sure has a lot of truth to it. One Sunday morning an old biker entered a church building just before services were to begin. Although the old man and his clothes were spotlessly clean, he wore jeans, a denim shirt and boots that were very worn and ragged. In his hand, he carried a worn out old leather jacket and an equally worn out Bible. The congregation was made of people from an upscale and exclusive part of the city. The building was the largest and most beautiful church facility the old biker had ever seen.
The people of the congregation were dressed in expensive clothing with all the right appointments. As the biker took a seat, people moved away from him. No one greeted him, spoke to him, or welcomed him. Everybody was appalled at his appearance and didn’t attempt to hide it. The pastor gave a long sermon that included hellfire and brimstone and a stern lecture on how much money the church needed to do God's work.
As the old biker was leaving the church, the pastor approached him and asked the biker to do him a favor. “Before you come back in here again, have a talk with God and ask him what He thinks would be appropriate attire for worship." The old biker assured the pastor he would do just that.
The next Sunday, he showed back up for the worship service of that same church wearing the same ragged jeans, shirt, boots, and leather jacket. Once again, he was completely shunned and ignored. The pastor approached the man and said, "I thought I asked you to speak to God before you came back here." "I did," replied the old biker.
"If you spoke to God, what did he tell you the proper attire should be for worshiping with us?" asked the pastor. "Well, sir, God told me that He didn't have a clue what I should wear. He says He's never been in this church before."
The Church, you know, isn’t a building. For twelve years, this congregation worshiped in a school gym, held Catechism class in the basement of my house, held small group Bible studies in mall restaurants and food courts and living rooms. We didn’t have a building, but we were a church. Part of the vision for Friendship Church is that we would be a people so on fire from our relationship with Jesus Christ that whether in worship or out in our everyday lives, we will see God working clearly in our lives and unlike the congregation the biker visited, we’ll show God clearly to others as well.
In our Bible lesson for this morning, two early evangelists of the Church were in a town called Lystra. One was Paul, about whom you likely know a lot. The other was a more obscure figure and one of my favorites, Barnabas. While in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas encounter a man who has been crippled since birth, as happened when two other early evangelists, Peter and John, were in the Jerusalem in our Bible lesson of a few weeks ago. Paul saw faith in this paralyzed man and “in a loud voice,” tells the man in the Name of Jesus Christ, to rise and walk. The man does just that!
The crowd was, as you can imagine, stunned and amazed. Believers in the false idols of Greek and Roman mythology, they begin shouting that Paul and Barnabas are gods walking among them. They’re certain that the two of them are really Zeus and Hermes. Local legend in Lystra said that once upon a time, those two Greek gods had visited their town and because only one old couple offered them hospitality, they killed everyone in the city but them. Anxious to avoid a similar fate, the fearful people begin to fall down and worship Paul and Barnabas. Even the local priest gets in on the act, bringing some oxen to sacrifice to these gods so powerful that they healed a paralyzed man.
When Paul and Barnabas see what’s happening, they’re shocked and appalled. (And unlike Justin Timberlake, who claimed to have been shocked and appalled by what happened at the end of his Super Bowl appearance with Janet Jackson, Paul and Branabas really are shocked and appalled.) In the ancient Jewish gesture of grief, they tear their clothes and shout to the people, “Knock it off! We’re only ordinary people like you, not gods. But we’ve got good news. You don’t have to live in mortal terror of God or fear that your sins have given you one-way tickets to hell.”
They go on to explain to the crowd that they can turn from their sin and receive the free gifts of forgiveness, hope, and everlasting life that goes to all with faith in Jesus Christ. “Surrender to Jesus,” they tell the crowds. “Jesus is God in human flesh and He can change your lives forever! He’s the One you need to worship.”
Paul and Barnabas were desperate to show people that the God we meet in Jesus Christ is the One Who can help our lives make sense. They wanted people to see God clearly in Jesus Christ. That’s what we need to be about at Friendship as well.
I can’t tell you how happy as I am as the pastor of this congregation to hear evidence that because you let Jesus live in you, people do see God a bit more clearly. This past Wednesday night, as the latest session of Friendship 101, our new members class, began, I asked folks to talk about how they’d come to Friendship and what their first impressions were. I was really interested when Gary E. said that in most other churches, he felt that people were judging him right away. It seemed to him that they were saying, “Why haven’t you been here before?” But, Gary says, he immediately felt welcomed at Friendship.
That’s the way it should be in Christ’s Church. We should never forget that the most important people among us are people who don’t belong to our congregation. That’s who you and I are here to serve and welcome and shower kindness upon. Like Barnabas and Paul, we’re ordinary human beings whose sins have been forgiven and whose lives are being transformed by the extraordinary God of the universe Who sent His Son Jesus to die and rise for us and the world around us needs to see that!
And it seems that even young people who are touched by the ministry of Friendship Church get to see God clearly and pick up on how large His love is. This past Thursday, I was chatting with Stephanie W. about her trip to the emergency room on Sunday. She’s doing pretty well now and will undergo an ultrasound on Tuesday. But Stephanie also wanted to tell me something that Sydney, her and Mark’s four year old daughter, had said during nighttime prayers that evening. Unprompted, Sydney offered prayers for the troops in Iraq. She also asked God to bless “the bad guys.” Sydney sees clearly that God loves all of us, good guys and bad guys.
People have lots of wrong-headed ideas about God. Like the people in Lystra, they can think that He’s a bloodthirsty tyrant just looking for the chance to kill people who don’t please them. But I have also learned something over the years. People are desperate to see God, desperate to know that God cares, that God forgives them their faults, that God wants what’s best for them.
This past week, the interim pastor of Peace Lutheran Church of Georgetown, Ohio, was on vacation and I was asked to visit a man from that church who was having quadruple bypass surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital. There was a mixup on the time of the operation and so I arrived just as he was being wheeled into the cardiac intensive care unit following surgery. I found the family in the waiting room. We talked for about ten minutes and we prayed together. Nothing could have been more ordinary. But the next day, after the man had been moved to a regular hospital room, his wife called me up to say, “I just wanted to thank you for being here. It meant so much to us.” I remembered Paul and Barnabas, I suppose, and I told the woman, “Thank you. But remember, whatever good I do in my life...and I mean whatever good I do, comes from God, not me.”
There is absolutely nothing of lasting value we can accomplish if God’s hand isn’t in it. But when we surrender our lives and wills to the gracious, charitable God we know through Jesus Christ, there is no end to what He can accomplish in and through us. As long as we let Jesus have control of our lives, Friendship Church will always be a people in whom others can see God clearly. May it always be so!